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Will the Old Harry Kane Ever Come Back?

A year ago, the Tottenham striker was blossoming into a goal-scoring superstar. Today, forget about scoring. He’s struggling just to shoot.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On March 11 against Bournemouth, Harry Kane seemed to have scored his 25th goal of the 2017-18 season—another tally in what seemed destined to become a record-breaking season for a superstar just reaching the height of his powers. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the only two players on the planet who have consistently shot the ball at least five times per 90 minutes over the past five or 10 years. And yet, there was the 24-year-old Harry Kane, looking like he should be wearing a bowler and a monocle, ripping off over six attempts per 90 minutes. After scoring 75 goals in the previous three seasons, he took the leap. He’d scored 24 goals in 28 games, and it wasn’t some fluke; his expected goals total (23.98) was almost exactly in line with his production.

This finish was trademark Kane: intelligence, sudden movement to manufacture space in the most dangerous area of the field, and enough cool under pressure to turn a half chance into a full one. He split the opposition defenders and got on the end of a looping pass from Christian Eriksen right around the penalty spot. Kane slotted the ball in at the near post and then had his legs wiped out from under him by the onrushing Cherries keeper, Asmir Begovic.

Only, the linesman had his flag raised. Kane was a step offside and the goal would not stand. A minor setback, though: This would’ve been Kane’s first shot of the game, and there were surely five or six more to come. But then Kane couldn’t get up. He re-injured ankle ligaments, left the match, and missed nearly a month. He hasn’t been the same since.

Kane finished last season with 30 goals, though the highlight of his season may have been him swearing on his daughter’s life in order to ensure that he was given credit for a dubious header against Stoke City. This summer, he won the Golden Boot for England at the World Cup with six goals, but only one of those came from open play. Perhaps buoyed by the individual international triumph and an albeit limited late-summer break, he then scored two Premier League goals in August—something he’d somehow never even done once before.

Kane hasn’t scored in September, but his problems go back further than that. Since getting hurt against Bournemouth, Kane hasn’t been a superstar; he’s basically been average. These are his numbers from the start of last season up to the Bournemouth game, and then from his return against Stoke up to today:

The Two Harry Kanes

Time Shots per 90 Goals per 90 xG per 90
Time Shots per 90 Goals per 90 xG per 90
Pre-Injury 6.03 0.89 0.89
Post-Injury 2.75 0.67 0.45

And here’s the Fall of Kane, in graphic form:

The conclusion seems pretty clear: Harry Kane hurt his ankle and then he stopped being Harry Kane. In his 12 starts before the injury, he took 71 shots. In the 12 since, he’s taken just 33. Through five Premier League games this season, Kane has taken more than two shots just one time.

There’s a Briticism that sportswriters use called “off the pace.” Like many figures of speech, its meaning has gotten stretched past the point of recognition, but I can’t think of a better way to describe Kane this season.

Kane’s never been the fastest striker, nor the most skilled, nor the most anything really. What made him into a superstar was a diverse collection of marginal skills: his height, his timing in the air and on the ground, his constantly decisive off-ball movement, his adequate feet, his awkwardly effective long legs, the hunched-over dribbling style that seemed to corral those gangly limbs, the ferocious shot that required no windup. Kane could manufacture a shot out of almost any situation—whether it was a one-on-four at the edge of the Liverpool penalty area ...

... or a loose ball near Arsenal’s corner flag:

Whatever the pace, Kane was never beyond it; he was always right on it. Not anymore, though. Last weekend against Liverpool, Kane took just two shots, but what’s more concerning is how inactive he was across the field. Look at these sprinting numbers:

Then, in Tuesday’s Champions League match in Italy against Inter Milan, Kane played 90 minutes and finished the match with a once-unfathomable zero attempts on goal. This was the closest he came:

That is the exact type of chance that a top striker, like Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero or Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, turns into a shot, and it’s why the best strikers are typically the ones who take the most attempts. They’re not just firing off low-quality attempts left and right; if they were, they’d end up on the bench. Instead, they find space in the box that other players can’t and gather difficult passes with enough economy to stab the ball on goal before an opponent arrives. In other words, they do exactly what Kane did the last time Tottenham played a Champions League game in Italy:

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has dismissed the idea that Kane is not fully healthy. That would seem to suggest that the team’s tactics have changed, but if they have, it’s only resulted in marginalizing Kane’s involvement in the team. He’s not any more important in build-up play than he has been in the past, and he’s not creating more chances for his teammates than he used to either. In fact, all of Kane’s measurable on-ball numbers are pretty much the same as they’ve always been—except for the one thing that made him great. The only potential positive from the current stretch is that Kane’s shot quality is way up: 0.21 xG per shot this season, compared with 0.14 last year. He took 62 open-play shots from outside the box in 2017-18, and he’s taken none this year. However, the raw totals are still way below where they need to be.

Over the last few weeks, Tottenham have taken over as the current holders of the “Team in Crisis” title belt. They didn’t buy a single player this summer, and now anonymous players are claiming that Pochettino’s demanding approach has worn them all down. That may be true, and Tottenham’s current run of success has always felt like a house of cards: How long could they really hold together one of the most talented squads in the world without paying their players as much as their closest competitors? But knee-jerk narratives often get written by the schedule: Tottenham just lost to Liverpool, who look like one of the best teams in the world, and a talented Inter team who were playing at home. Tottenham’s next four of Premier League opponents are Brighton, Huddersfield, Cardiff City, and West Ham—four of the worst teams in England.

If Tottenham’s performances don’t pick up after that easy slate of matches, then it’s time to be concerned. But even if they take 12 points from an available 12, and those games aren’t accompanied by a barrage of shots from Kane, then we’ll need to keep talking about him. Maybe he’s still hurt, maybe he needs a rest, or maybe he’s just in a funk. Despite the slump, the current Harry Kane is still the outlier among what is already an incredibly impressive and robust career. Hopefully the old Harry Kane comes back—and I do think he eventually will. But with each passing game that produces just a couple of shots, it seems less and less likely.